Musk's one month at the helm of Twitter: four points on content moderation

Musk's one month at the helm of Twitter: four points on content moderation

Elon Musk arrived at Twitter with the promise of making the platform a paradise of free speech. With the idea that content moderation is tantamount to censorship and the announcement that everything that was not illegal would be allowed under his command, Musk won the applause of sectors that consider themselves silenced by Twitter. Instead, he set off alarm bells among regulators, journalists and academics, who from different approaches understand the complexities of the matter and the great risks of the Tesla founder's venture. 

Although one month is a short time to evaluate a management, Musk's timing and decisions have been volatile. We leave four points to explain where Twitter is today in terms of moderation:

1. Where did the moderation council go?

The day after his arrival, apparently to calm opinions that predicted that under his tenure the platform would become a hostile place, Musk announced that he would create a content moderation council made up of people with different points of view. He said no major moderation decision would be made without first being evaluated by this council.

At the time the announcement felt good and for some it was a sign that Musk was understanding that moderation was an important component of his new company's business model. Even the Oversight Board, an independent body of Meta that has the power to reverse decisions and make recommendations to the company on moderation issues, offered to accompany and guide Twitter in this initiative.  

The promise was short-lived. In late November, a video of a Zoom meeting was leaked in which Musk explained to his team that, while a board would indeed be formed, he would choose the members and make the substantive decisions himself. As we would see shortly thereafter, that clarification was simply the prelude: Musk had the power and he was going to exercise it. Soon.

2. Voice of Elon, Voice of God

In a combination of populism and a strategy to generate attention and traffic on his own platform, Musk began taking key Twitter decisions via Twitter. This was the case for reinstating Donald Trump's account, which had been suspended in January 2021 for breaching the glorification of violence policy. 

Musk himself had made clear his position on this sanction, which he had described as "immoral and extremely foolish" in May of this year, when he also said that he would reverse it in the event that he completed the purchase of the company.

After much speculation, finally on November 18 Musk submitted the decision to a poll on his personal account on the social network. After the participation of 15 million people and a result in favor of Trump's return, the account was reinstated. Vox Populi, Vox Dei, was the Latin formula used by Musk to justify his decision: the voice of the people is the voice of God. 

The following week Musk turned to the same procedure to ask his audience whether they thought Twitter should grant a general amnesty to suspended accounts and reinstate all of them unless they were spam or had broken the law. This time, the turnout was much lower, but the result was more resounding: 76% of users voted in favor of the proposal. Once again, Musk tweeted that the people had spoken and announced that the company would begin work on such an amnesty. 

It is not clear how Musk intends to carry out the restitution of these accounts or what criteria might be used to assess whether someone did indeed break the law. In any case, the procedure has already been set in motion for about 62,000 accounts with more than 10,000 followers, in an operation that has been internally dubbed "Big Bang," according to trade journalist Casey Newton. 

In any case, these decisions are a far cry from the practices that social networking platforms have tried to establish over the last decade. Moreover, there are several objections to this attempt to endorse their decisions through public feedback. As Yoel Roth, Twitter's former director of safety and trust, noted, few functions of the platform are as open to manipulation and bot participation as polls. 

Amid problems and tensions and differences with governments, regulators and sectors of civil society, these companies have been developing internal processes and guidelines to arbitrate the behavior of their users. Will Musk be able to get past them?

3. The bottleneck

This week, Musk opened a new battle front with Apple, one of Twitter's main advertisers and a key ally of the company, as with its app store - which feeds all iOS systems - it acts as a bottleneck for the platform's reach.

At the moment, only Musk's side of the story is known, who claimed that Apple had threatened to suspend Twitter from the App Store and had significantly decreased its ad spending on the platform. According to the self-described 'Chief Twit', Apple was making "demands for moderation", and he questioned whether this pressure implied hatred of free speech in the United States. 

In the past, the company now headed by Tim Cook has left out of its app store social media that were born under the banner of absolute freedom of expression, such as Parler and Truth Social, which eventually had to adjust their moderation policies to the standards of the Google and Apple stores.

Musk's affront quickly garnered support from conservative sectors in the United States. Ron DeSantis, governor of Florida, called on Congress to act in case Twitter was indeed kicked out of the App Store, while Tucker Carlson, one of the most visible faces of Fox News, said that Apple's attitude was deeply un-American and rather loyal to the Chinese government.

It is true that companies like Apple and Google have inordinate market power and that their operations have been the subject of bills in the United States to prevent abuses and anti-competitive behavior. Musk, the richest man in the world, must not feel very comfortable that other companies have the ability to stop his plans and take a significant slice of his revenue, as Apple charges a 30% commission on all transactions made on apps downloaded through its store.

As the days have passed, the story has fallen apart. On Wednesday, Musk met with Tim Cook at Apple's offices. As reported by himself, the conversation had served to resolve misunderstandings and make it clear that Apple had never intended to expel Twitter from its app store. Shortly after, it became known that the phone and computer manufacturer had not reduced its spending on the platform either.

Beyond this drama, the incident reminds us of the enormous power of the app stores, an aspect of the discussion on content moderation that is increasingly pushed to the back burner. In Musk's accounting of the obstacles he must overcome to implement his vision for Twitter, he cannot underestimate these intermediaries, who serve as the social media' housekeepers. For now, while news reports speak of tensions between Apple and Twitter, business relations remain healthy. 

4. The end of the Twitter pandemic

Twitter's rules - which set out what can and cannot be said on the platform - had been unscathed until this week. While Musk made and unmade by reviving some accounts and suspending others, the rules had not changed. However, on Nov. 29, the policy controlling covid-19-related disinformation ceased to exist.

Elon Musk with a health mask, digital art, interpreted by DreamStudio

The company did not give notice of the measure on its blog and there is no mention of it on Twitter's new communications office: @elonmusk. All the information is reduced to a note in the transparency report which reads that as of November 23 Twitter stopped applying the misleading information policy related to covid-19, which, among others, prohibited false content about vaccines or ways of contagion.

While the global covid situation has improved and most countries have overcome the health emergency, platforms such as YouTube and Meta continue to have active policies in place to control pandemic-related misinformation. Meta, in particular, asked its Oversight Board for an advisory opinion to assess whether it is appropriate to modify or suspend these policies. Perhaps Musk will say that he also consulted with his Oversight Board: himself.

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